Monday, December 21, 2009

China’s higher education revolution

I recently visited the top four universities in mainland China: Tsinghua University, Peking University, Fudan University, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The former two are located in Beijing, and the latter two are located in Shanghai.

As an American educational researcher, the purpose of my visit was to witness and assess China's higher education revolution firsthand.

When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, there were only 205 universities in China. They closed down during the turbulent era of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1977. Under Deng Xiaoping, they began to reopen in 1978.

In the 30 years since, China has experienced a higher education revolution. It now has the largest higher education system in the world.Five of its universities are in the world's top 100. University enrollment has more than tripled since 2000. More university degrees are awarded in China than in the U.S. and India combined. Over the last decade, annual awards of doctoral degrees in China have risen sevenfold. China recently surpassed the UK to become the world's second-largest producer of academic research papers, and is on course to surpass the U.S. by 2020.

The four universities I visited are part of a nine-university alliance, dubbed C9, which is hailed as China's Ivy League. The nine universities share resources and recognize each other's course credits.

China's C9 League differs from America's Ivy League in several ways.First, C9 universities are public; the Ivy League universities are private. Second, C9 universities answer to the Ministry of Education; the Ivy League universities answer to their own board. Third, C9 formed around academics; the Ivy League formed around athletics. Fourth, C9 includes nine universities; the Ivy League includes eight.

The C9 League was created on October 10, 2009; however, the concept for its formation began a decade ago when Jiang Zemin initiated Project 985.Under the project, the nine universities received millions of dollars in funding.

China's heavy investment in its leading universities is evident. As I explored the four campuses, I was impressed with the massive number of research facilities.

As China continues to strengthen its universities, the U.S. appears to be losing its international dominance in higher education. If the U.S. falls behind, it will be a very long march back.


British universities shun excellence under political pressure

Leading universities are shunning the new A-level A* grade for fear that it will derail their attempts to increase the numbers of students they admit from state schools and poor families. The new grade, which will be awarded for the first time next summer, was intended to help universities distinguish between the soaring numbers of A-level pupils scoring A grades.

Institutions that are ignoring the A* in the current round of applications, partly because it may lead to more private school pupils winning places, include Leeds, St Andrews and Cardiff. Others, including University College London (UCL) and Warwick are placing tight restrictions on the use of A*s in offers. Their concerns will be intensified by findings from researchers at the Independent Schools Council, who say that, based on this year’s A-level results, 16.5% of all papers taken by its members’ pupils would have scored an A*, more than double the national average.

The introduction of the new grade was intended to make it simpler for universities to select candidates, but schools have instead been left confused about whether their pupils will gain an advantage from achieving the grade. Cambridge is the only university using the A* as a standard part of its offers for entry in 2010. This has resulted in a slight fall in applicant numbers as weaker candidates are put off, bucking the national trend of rising university applications.

Imperial College London and Sussex, in addition to UCL and Warwick, will use the grade for a limited number of courses. Others, including Oxford, Bristol, Durham and Surrey, take into account whether a candidate is predicted by their school to score an A*, but will not make offers that include the new grade. They will wait to see how it operates in practice, but do not cite fears over the balance of independent and state school grades.

John Morgan, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, and head teacher of Conyers school, a comprehensive in Stockton-on-Tees, described such an approach as “wriggling a bit”.

Tim Hands, master of Magdalen College school, Oxford, and chairman of the main independent schools university committee, said: “Selection for top universities became a lottery because of lack of an A*. Now we have a double lottery where some use the A* and some don’t. The lack of transparency has been disgraceful.” One of Hands’s former pupils, Ed Bernard, 18, was celebrating winning a place at Durham last week after applying post-A-level. His scores were so good Hands believes he would have been predicted three A*s, had the grade been available. Because only As were possible, Bernard was rejected by all his preferred universities last year, leaving a surprise gap year.

To win an A*, candidates must score at least 80% overall in their two years of A-level study and 90% in exams taken in the second year. The new grade was introduced in response to complaints by universities that the soaring number of As at A-level was making it increasingly hard to identify the best candidates. One in eight pupils now achieves three A grades. Exam regulators soon warned that independent schools would dominate the new grade, creating a clash with another Labour priority in higher education — loosening the grip of privately educated students at leading universities.

This concern is reflected in the approach some institutions are taking to pupils now applying — the first year group eligible for the A*. Helen Clapham, head of student recruitment at Leeds, said: “We have reservations about the A* because of the likelihood that more will go to the independent sector. “The independent sector tends to do better in A-levels generally.”

Darren Wallis, Warwick’s admissions director, said his university would use A*s for a few maths offers this year, but would only cautiously widen its use depending in part on the “degree of dominance” by private schools.

The confusion about how the A* is used has been heightened by the decision of some universities to take into account schools’ predictions, despite refusing to make offers that include the grade. Some leading schools, including Cheltenham ladies’ college, are not making A* predictions as they believe there are no reliable data on which to base judgments.

Geoff Parks, Cambridge’s admissions director, said his university was making its own predictions, mostly ignoring those by schools. “Some of the A* predictions made by schools have been fanciful in the extreme,” said Parks.


British Christian teacher lost her job after being told praying for sick girl 'was bullying'

But the light of publicity seems to be causing a lot of backpedalling

A devout Christian teacher has lost her job after discussing her faith with a mother and her sick child and offering to pray for them. Olive Jones, a 54-year-old mother of two, who taught maths to children too ill to attend school, was dismissed following a complaint from the girl’s mother. She was visiting the home of the child when she spoke about her belief in miracles and asked whether she could say a prayer, but when the mother indicated they were not believers she did not go ahead.

Mrs Jones was then called in by her managers who, she says, told her that sharing her faith with a child could be deemed to be bullying and informed her that her services were no longer required.

Her dismissal has outraged Christian groups, who say new equality regulations are driving Christianity to the margins of society. They said the case echoed that of community nurse Caroline Petrie, who was suspended last December after offering to pray for a patient but who was later reinstated after a national outcry. Coincidentally, Mrs Petrie lives nearby and has been a friend of Mrs Jones for some years. Mrs Jones, whose youngest son is a Royal Marine who has served in Afghanistan, said she was merely trying to offer comfort and encouragement and only later realised her words had caused distress, for which she is apologetic.

The softly spoken teacher, who has more than 20 years’ experience, said she was ‘devastated’ by the decision to end her employment, which she said was ‘completely disproportionate’. She said she had been made to feel like a ‘criminal’, and claimed that Christians were being persecuted because of ‘political correctness’. Speaking at her home in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, she said: ‘Teaching was my dream from the age of 16. It is as if 20 years of my work, which I was passionate about, has gone. It is like a grief. ‘I have been sleeping badly and been in a daze. I haven’t even got around to putting up a Christmas tree or decorations. So much for Christmas cheer.’

Mrs Jones shares her comfortable four-bedroom house with her husband Peter, who is also a teacher and heads the maths department at a local state secondary school. The house provides few clues about her strong beliefs. There is a small wooden cross on one wall, a few plaques carrying religious texts, and some Bibles in the sitting room which she used in her studies for a diploma at the Pentecostal Carmel Bible College in Bristol.

She is a regular churchgoer, attending her local Church of England church most Sundays, but she also occasionally opts for more lively evangelical worship at the college.

After training to be a teacher at Aberystwyth University, where she met her husband, and a period bringing up her children – student Rob, 24, and soldier James, 23 – she returned to teaching in state secondary schools and sixth-form colleges. Wanting to concentrate more on family life, she began a part-time job more than four years ago at the Oak Hill Short Stay School and Tuition Service North, which caters for children with illness or behavioural difficulties. She had no formal contract but was scheduled to work to a timetable for about 12 hours a week at the school in a converted bungalow and one-storey prefabricated block in nearby Nailsea.

She prepared lessons, taught and marked work for about six children between 11 and 16 who had problems ranging from leukaemia to Attention Deficit Disorder. In reality, however, pupils were frequently unavailable for lessons, and she says she often found herself working as little as 20 hours a month.

As she was technically a supply teacher, she was paid £25 an hour plus mileage and had to submit a timesheet. While she was working, she was paid about £700 a month before tax and pension contributions by North Somerset Council, and received payslips. Occasionally she would teach one or two sick children at their homes, and from September she made half-a-dozen visits to one child in a middle-class area who she was tutoring in GCSE maths. On the fourth visit the girl stayed in her bedroom because she did not feel well enough for lessons, so Mrs Jones chatted to her mother and raised the subject of her faith, saying she believed God had saved her life.

The teacher said when she was a teenager she had been driving a tractor on the family farm near Carmarthen in Wales when it slid down a slope but came to a halt just before tipping over. ‘I shut my eyes and thought I was going to die,’ said Mrs Jones. ‘Then there was a sound of a rushing wind, like that described in the Bible, and then total stillness. ‘I was convinced it was a miracle. I shared my testimony to encourage the mother to believe that there is a God who answers prayer. I believe I have a personal relationship with God, who is a constant source of strength.’

Unbeknown to Mrs Jones, the mother complained about her comments to health authorities in the mistaken belief that they were her employers. It appears, however, that these criticisms were not passed on to Mrs Jones. Unaware that there were any problems, Mrs Jones’s fifth lesson with the child passed without incident, but when she returned for her sixth session towards the end of last month, things went awry. She said that although the girl came downstairs in her dressing gown, she could not face a lesson, so the three of them chatted over cups of tea about books they were reading. Mrs Jones once again referred to the incident involving the tractor and spoke about her belief in Heaven.

‘I told them there were people praying for them, and I asked the child if I could pray for her,’ said Mrs Jones. ‘She looked at her mother, who said, “We come from a family who do not believe”, so I did not pray. ‘I asked the mother if she wanted me to cancel the next lesson as her daughter had not been feeling up to maths, but she said no.’

She left on what she thought were good terms and returned to the unit to do some more work, but within a few hours she was told that the head of the unit, Kaye Palmer-Greene, wanted to see her in her office. ‘I suspected it must be serious as Kaye did not normally see people without an appointment,’ said Mrs Jones. ‘When I got to her office I was told to wait outside. ‘Then the unit co-ordinator Karen Robinson came out and said I would have to come back later. I could tell by her face I was in big trouble. ‘I asked her if I was being sacked but she refused to comment. I drove to a Tesco car park and sat in the car and called a few friends to ask them to pray.’

About an hour-and-a-half later she was told she could go back to the office, and she went in holding a Bible. ‘You could feel the tension in air,’ she said. ‘I was so frightened I could hardly breathe. ‘I was a total wreck. I was shaking and in shock. I had never experienced anything like this before. I had a faultless record. It was horrible, one of the worst experiences of my life. ‘They were very strict and firm. Kaye was mostly silent while Karen read comments from the parent from a sheet of A4 paper. One thing the parent said was that I had demanded a cup of tea, which I hadn’t. ‘Then she said that my testimony and mention of prayer had distressed her and her daughter, and she didn’t want me to tutor in their home again. Obviously, if I had known she was upset when I had first mentioned my testimony I would never have brought it up again. But I had no idea. ‘I don’t push my beliefs down other people’s throats, and I apologise for any unintentional distress I may have caused.’

Mrs Jones said that during the meeting Ms Robinson told her that talking about faith issues in the house of a pupil could be regarded as bullying. Ms Robinson also asked Mrs Jones why she had ignored her advice not to pray or speak about her faith at work, a reference to an occasion three years ago when the teacher had prayed for a girl with period pains. The girl appears to have complained and Ms Robinson had told Mrs Jones to be more professional, but Mrs Jones said there had been no written warning.

‘Karen then said I had been an exemplary maths teacher, but my services were no longer required. As I had no contract, they could tell me to go just like that. ‘They also told me that had I been on a contract, I could be facing disciplinary proceedings. But they never told me the grounds for that.’

Mrs Jones was advised by a friend to contact the Christian Legal Centre, an independent group of lawyers funded by public donations that defends Christians in legal difficulties.

‘I am not angry with my bosses, as they are trying to interpret new equality and diversity policies,’ she said. ‘But I am angry with the politically-correct system and about the fact that you can’t mention anything to do with faith to people who might find it of use. ‘My main concern is the interpretation of the policies concerned, which seem very ambiguous. ‘An atheist may think that you shouldn’t speak about anything to do with faith to students if it is not your specialist area, but it is not really clear. ‘It is as if my freedom of speech is being restricted. I feel I am being persecuted for speaking about my faith in a country that is supposed to be Christian. ‘I feel if I had spoken about almost any other topic I would have been fine but Christianity is seen as a no-go area. It felt as if I was being treated as a criminal. It is like a bad dream that had come true.’

She said that although she was clear that she had been sacked, she had recently been approached by a senior education official who had said the complaint was still being investigated and had suggested a meeting. She said she believed the approach had been triggered by the involvement of the Christian Legal Centre, and she was now taking legal advice about how to proceed.

Andrea Williams, a lawyer and director of the Christian Legal Centre, said: ‘The story of Olive Jones is sadly becoming all too familiar in this country. It is the result of a heavy-handed so-called equalities agenda that discriminates against Christians and seeks to eliminate Christian expression from the public square...

Nick Yates, a spokesman for North Somerset Council, said: ‘Olive Jones has worked as a supply teacher, working with the North Somerset Tuition service. A complaint has been made by a parent regarding Olive. This complaint is being investigated. ‘To complete the investigation we need to speak to Olive and we have offered her a number of dates so this can happen. At the moment we are waiting for her to let us know which date is convenient for her.’


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